PEN America warns publishers: avoid banning books over moral outrage

PEN America warns publishers: avoid banning books over moral outrage

by Suswati Basu
Suswati Basu speaks with author Jean Kwok on book challenge as PEN America report shows publishers censoring books

The world of books is standing at a crossroads, as traditional norms and practices are being challenged by the ever-evolving digital landscape, according to a new report by PEN America. In Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm, the organisation warns against the cancellation of books due to moral panic —and calls for a broad recommitment to the freedom to write and the freedom to read. What they showcase is that both sides of the political spectrum are stifling debate over literature.

Online spaces have now become the primary platform for literary discourse, enabling a dynamic dialogue among readers, authors, and decision-makers that was previously unimaginable. This newfound openness, however, has given rise to spirited debates and controversies over matters such as race portrayal, authenticity of narratives, and the pursuit of equity in literature. Furthermore, recent years have witnessed a much-needed reckoning within the industry, prompting debates about harm, representation, and offence. This includes ‘cancel culture’ in some quarters as well as review bombing.

“If advocates for an open society accept the principle that books should be as widely available as possible, […] that offense taken by certain groups of readers cannot be grounds to withhold books from availability, and that withdrawing books from circulation is rarely—if ever—justified, these precepts must extend not just to government book banning but also to how the literary community governs itself.”

AYAD AKHTAR, PEN America President

Current PEN president, Ayad Akhtar, and the organisation makes it clear that this is not the book-banning issue being seen at play in so many parts of the post-Trump-administration US. Instead, this is often about attempts at suppression from within the industry itself.

PEN America on the Freedom to Read books

Endorsed by PEN America and a coalition of publishers and literary organisations, the Freedom to Read Statement remains an essential guiding principle. At its core, this statement reaffirms the democratic notion that individual judgment should guide readers’ choices rather than allowing suppression to take root. It defends the right to access a free press and resist sacrificing this heritage in favour of supposed protection from “bad” ideas. This enduring principle underscores the vital importance of free expression and is just as relevant today as when it was first formulated.

Navigating contentious conversations

The organisation said a significant portion of these debates takes place in the realm of young adult (YA) literature, where discussions around inclusivity and representation are particularly heightened. While criticisms and discussions around sensitive topics are essential for progress, some critics label books as “problematic” and call for their censorship, withdrawal, or author ostracism. Such tactics risk stifling intellectual freedom and closing the door to important conversations about societal issues.

“[Critics] who apply a rhetoric of harm in their evaluation of YA books risk playing into the hands of book banners, who also use the language of harm and describe books as “dangerous.””

AYAD AKHTAR, PEN America President

Authors and publishers, in response to criticism, sometimes feel compelled to alter or withdraw their works. Recent author-led revisions or withdrawals include Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Snow Forest (2023), Dav Pilkey’s Ook and Gluk: Kung Fu Cavemen from the Future by Dav Pilkey (2021), Amélie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir (2019), and Kosoko Jackson’s A Place for Wolves (2019). These examples raise questions about how authors should respond to in-the-moment charges that their work is offensive or harmful.

While addressing valid concerns is essential, the organisation says a key concern is the potential for an environment in which subjective notions of harm dictate literary discourse. Furthermore, according to PEN America, withdrawing books due to potential offence sets a troubling precedent, potentially limiting creativity and the exchange of ideas.

The role of publishers

PEN America warns that publishers bear the responsibility of upholding the values enshrined in the Freedom to Read Statement in order to avoid following in the footsteps of McCarthyism. Central to these responsibilities is ensuring widespread public access to books and ideas, fostering individual judgment and discernment.

McCarthyism was a term coined in the 1950s to describe activities associated with Republican senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. It was the practice of publicly accusing workers of political disloyalty or subversive activities and using unsavoury investigatory methods to prosecute them. This became common within the liberal arts circle, who were accused of being Communists. Hence PEN America said that “the written word’s power to prompt change in the real world is what makes writers the target of autocrats and oppressors around the world.” Thus wanting to avoid any association with this type of policy.

“We believe that every American community must jealously guard the freedom to publish and to circulate, in order to preserve its own freedom to read.”

Pen america

Publishers, they say, should refrain from sacrificing individual works or authors in a bid to project moral positions. Instead, they must clarify their obligations to writers and readers, reaffirming their commitment to freedom of expression and the freedom to read. Transparency in decision-making and support for authors when their works face criticism are crucial steps to uphold these principles.

Preserving open dialogue

The communique emphasises that literary discourse requires a shift in tone towards open and respectful dialogue. While criticism is valid, labelling books as “harmful” or “dangerous” without reading them is counterproductive. Such arguments can be easily exploited to promote censorship, especially in the face of government-led attacks on freedom. Upholding the values of debate, disagreement, and open dialogue is essential to protect intellectual and academic freedom.

In the report, it says: “While decisions to remove books from circulation remain relatively rare, each withdrawal sets a precedent: one where publishers see jettisoning a book as a legitimate response to criticism, even criticism from those who have not read the book.”

Freedom of imagination and representation

PEN America said it also believes that rejecting the notion that a specific identity is necessary for exploring certain subjects or perspectives is crucial. This means that writers would be free to explore diverse narratives without facing undue criticism, though accountability is not exempt. Controversy should not prompt authors to withdraw their work.

“Robust, even contentious public debate about books and literature is part of a vibrant democracy. And authors and publishers should be open to criticism for the books they release, including charges of racial, gender, or other forms of insensitivity,” they added.

Challenges in a complex context

The organisation urged debates over offence and cultural transgressions, as they are not distractions but essential conversations. In a climate where government-backed censorship is on the rise, the discourse becomes more critical. Subjective claims that books are harmful can be manipulated for political agendas, demanding a firm stance against such assessments. Their concern surrounds mirroring the actions of those currently banning books from school libraries.

Read: ‘Criminalise librarians’: judge blocks controversial law

In the statement, Akhtar said that this means protecting First Amendment rights and free speech for all books, no matter how readers perceive it. He added: “This guardianship also requires a stalwart defense of the right of authors to write books that others may find offensive—and the right of publishers to publish them, and of readers to choose to read them.”

A call for renewed commitment to all books from PEN America

As a result, a number of recommendations were given to institutions and individuals in the literary community, including to renew their commitment to the principles of the Freedom to Read Statement. This entails hosting events to discuss its relevance, raising awareness through communication, sharing the statement widely, and incorporating it into public materials.

Additionally, the literary and publishing communities are recommended to foster discussions on these principles and uphold them when facing disputes. The fundamental aspect of this is to avoid censorship at all costs.

Institutional recommendations for Goodreads

As a significant platform for literary discourse, they say Goodreads should adopt clear policies to encourage authentic reviews and combat practices like review-bombing.

This happened with the young adult book “The Black Witch,” which is a 2017 fantasy novel by Laurie Forest that follows a young protagonist in a magical society dealing with racism. The protagonist’s character development addresses the racism she encounters. Despite becoming a bestseller, the book faced controversy when a white bookstore employee criticised it for being offensive and catering to white readers.

The backlash included demands for cancellation and negative reviews on Goodreads, fuelled by the perception of racism in the book. However, the controversy didn’t fully consider that the racist dialogue in the book was used to develop the protagonist’s story. Apparently many negative reviewers acknowledged that they had not read it, casting their negative ratings as a form of protest against the book’s perceived racism. For PEN America, there is a concern that it could have “chilling effect on future works.”

Read: Banned books in the US: 10 books on list

This concern may be particularly pronounced for younger or debut writers. Author Kazuo Ishiguro has argued that “a climate of fear” is leading less established writers to avoid writing outside their personal experience. “I very much fear for the younger generation of writers,” he told the BBC, who “rightly perhaps feel that their careers are more fragile, their reputations are more fragile and they don’t want to take risks.”

Kazuo Ishiguro says he worries for younger writers and self-censorship as PEN America report talks about publishers banning books
Kazuo Ishiguro says he worries for younger writers and self-censorship as PEN America report talks about publishers banning books. Credit: English PEN.

Ensuring a diverse marketplace of ideas is vital, particularly in cases where toxicity stifles discourse even before books are published. Therefore, they suggest that Goodreads could institute badges for verified reviewers and explore ways to identify coordinated campaigns to suppress book availability.

The landscape of publishing is undergoing a transformative phase, marked by new forms of dialogue and challenges. For PEN America, it’s all about upholding the principles of the Freedom to Read Statement and committing to open dialogue are essential to safeguard the freedom to read any books, promote diversity of thought, and preserve the value of literature as a means of sparking debate and critical questioning in society. They advocate to move forward through collective efforts from publishers, authors, readers, and literary influencers to ensure a thriving literary culture in the digital age. After all, censorship is censorship no matter who is doing it.

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